Oct 20, 2011

When Planning Turns Political

We throw around the words “strategic planning” everyday.  But, what does it mean?  Is the focus on “strategic” or on “planning”?  Or, is it both?  What are the challenges with running a good strategic planning process?  I have been reflecting on these and other similar questions much lately.
When I think of strategic planning, I am actually more interested in the “strategic” side of the exercise – the strategy.  Without a cogent strategy, most tuition-driven schools and colleges and most donor-centric non-profits, really struggle.  But, too often, I believe organizations become too narrowly focused on the “planning” portion of the process – the ability to try to control the outcome of the future with tactical action plans.  That effort often takes them into the weeds and they become overly concerned with what will happen with existing programs.  And, that potential issue turns the process into a political one.
Planning is essentially an exercise in control.  Similar to creating a driving route to get from Point A to Point B in the car, a plan is designed to move an organization in a linear way from one place to another.  Action steps define the turns along the way, but isn’t the path the more important issue?  What if external factors change, like our weather changes along our driving route?  What will our strategy have to say about how we react?
Most organizations function at least three – if not four – levels.  They area all important, but some are higher marks of maturity.  They include:
  1. Operational – We must turns the lights on the morning, unlock the doors, and answer the phone.
  2. Tactical – We must know “how” we are going to do certain things, such as solve a scheduling dilemma or create a better information system.
  3. Strategic – We need to know “what” we are really trying to accomplish and “where” we are going strategically.
  4. Visioning – What does success look like and how do we leverage our collective strengths to find the intersection between mission and market opportunity?

A sound strategic planning process should only focus on points three and four.  Conversations that lead to points one and two nearly always move toward the political ramifications of change on a school or college environment.  And, we know “change” and “education” often are not found in the same sentence.  As you look at your strategic planning process, we encourage you to really consider if it is focusing on the high level issues, or getting down in the weeds.